On the bank of Ganges at Calcutta, Richard (now Radhanath Swami) was shocked to see a goat being butchered as an offering to goddess Kali. He wondered that he had earlier met peaceful sages in the Himalayas who professed to practice the Hindu beliefs. However the followers of the same religion here at Calcutta were killing an animal mercilessly, in the name of giving pleasure to the Goddess. As he struggled to reconcile these apparent contradictions, he met a former priest of the temple who explained to Richard that in every religion people interpret scriptures and follow the tenets as per their ability to understand and realize the texts. After this experience Richard realized that he needed a guru or a guide in spiritual life who can resolve all these contradictions. He now also began to realize that examining many paths could seriously bewilder him due to the contradictions in every tradition. Therefore he felt a strong need to connect to a mature guide or guru.
Radhanath Swami, as an expert guide says that the scriptures have no contradictions. They are only ‘apparent’ contradictions. In some instances, scriptures are deliberately filled with apparent double-talk. A typical example is the language of the Upanishads: e.g., “The Supreme Lord walks and does not walk. He is far away, but He is very near as well. He is within everything, and yet He is outside of everything.” (Isopanishad Mantra 5) Such contradictory statements are provided to indicate His inconceivable, transcendental nature. He walks, but His walking is nothing like the walking within this mundane realm. So, thanks to these paradoxes, we are induced to reconsider and reform the deep-rooted material conceptions in our mind when contemplating the Supreme Absolute Truth.
It is not necessarily that all such contradictions are purposefully presented by the scriptures in order to get us to contemplate. It is just the nature of Absolute Truth, which appears to us to be contradictory when we try to capture it within the limited vocabulary of language or within the limited framework of our material mind and intelligence. But by patient and repeated aural reception of the whole message, and by receiving clarification from a realized soul, such contradictions become resolved.
Some of these apparent contradictions, which often become topics of debate among inter-faith discussions, are resolved by understanding the example of higher and lower level mathematics. One may learn in a simple way in elementary math that it is not possible to subtract a bigger number from a smaller one, but as one progressively learns the concepts of negative numbers, rational and irrational numbers, imaginary numbers and so on, instead of seeing contradictions, one’s understanding becomes wider and deeper.
Often, what appears as contradiction is due to our own lack of understanding or preconceptions about what God or spiritual life must look like. Sometimes it is seen that even when Reality is presented in a very simple and straightforward manner, people find it hard to reconcile.
The common tendency amongst those educated in the modern school of rationalism is to try to subject everything, including spiritual topics, to analysis and rationalization and reductionism — but these tools fail us miserably in trying to understand Spirit. Radhanath Swami often quotes the famous example of the five blind men — each of them came up with completely contradictory pictures of the elephant, while in fact none of them were close to whole truth. Our approach to scripture is often like those blind men, and thus we run into many “contradictions”. Therefore, in order to learn the truth, it is indispensable to approach a seeing man, i.e. a self-realized soul. Under the guidance of such a spiritual master, one can systematically learn to reconcile all contradictions and see the Whole Truth.
While practicing spiritual principles many aspirants discover contradictions in scriptures and also in their own experiences. I once heard Radhanath Swami explain that initially we seek everything in spiritual life to be black and white by which we can perfectly explain everything. However as we grow in our spiritual life, we discover shades of gray and realize that spiritual life is multi colored. Spiritual life may appear contradictory because as we advance in spiritual life we get deeper understanding of the world, other people, and other spiritual practitioners and God.